The best way to be productive is to multitask. Write your emails as you listen to a podcast. Talk on the phone as you are planning your day. Run two or more projects simultaneously, so none of them has “downtime” waiting for your attention. Create meetings with at least seven items on the agenda; this will force you to be on point and effective. And always stay on top of your phone notifications with near-instant response times. That is how productive people rule the world!
If the above sounds bonkers to you, you are correct. However, this is how I used to run my life, and I was a big believer in multitasking. As a software engineer, the way computers multitask is fascinating to me. And it was only “normal” to adopt the concept in my attempt to be more productive.
“There is no Spoon.”
Or better said, in this context, there is no multitasking. What happens inside a computer is that the CPU switches between programs so fast that for the human perception, it looks like it does a million things at once. In reality, the computer does one thing, then changes the context and does the next thing, and so on.
And our brain does the same. It can focus on only one thing at a time.
When you work and “at the same time” answer your Telegram, here is what happens:
- Your brain interrupts the work.
- Remembers what the Telegram conversation is about so it can understand the message.
- Then it creates a response.
- And then it goes back to work mode, trying to remember where you left off so you can continue.
Unlike a computer, changing the context of what to focus on is not as fast or easy for us humans. Context switching has a high cost! It may appear you are doing more, but the quality and depth of what you are doing drop dramatically.
I will not quote any studies around this. Instead, let’s look at some examples that are easy to understand:
If you work on a novel, or your next article, or your piece of art, and you get really focused on it, you can get into what is called “the zone.” You are inspired. The words flow, the vision is clear. Then the phone rings! How easy do you think it is to get back into that flow? Yes, you remember where you were, but the words are not flowing; the vision is now blurry. You are still spending time with your craft, but instead of bringing it forth, you stare at it uninspired.
A different example.
You are in a deep conversation with someone. You feel connected. Feelings and emotions are shared. The phone beeps again! It’s a fun emoji from your knitting group. You choose not to respond at this time and return to your conversation. What you will notice is that the quality of it has changed. There is no more depth. You need to connect again and dive deep again. Something was lost the instant your attention changed.
Multitasking gives us the illusion that we are connected with multiple things at the same time, but in reality, we just touch them briefly while we thirst for connection and meaning.
But let’s bring this back to business and being productive.
The two examples above illustrate an ability that we humans have, and computers don’t. And that is to go deeper into things and to access a place of intuition and inspired action.
That is the place where you have the insight that changes your life. That is the place where a product comes from that solves a problem in a unique way. That is the place where you can write something for your audience that shows a deep understanding and care for them.
You cannot get to that place if you are constantly switching between the things that you do.
And here is the crazy part.
Setting aside uninterrupted blocks of time for each project is better, but it is still context switching. Instead of doing it each 5 minutes, you do it each hour or two, depending on how long the block is.
Maybe this feels natural to us because of how school is set up. It fragments our attention, and you constantly need to change the context, so you begin to think this is “normal.”
But have you ever lost yourself in reading a book? Or in creating a painting? Or in dancing? When hours go by, and you don’t notice? Maybe that is the natural way and more effective way.
I notice in myself that when I focus on one thing, for days or weeks, my mind creates connections that do not happen otherwise. Because the context is always the same as the day unfolds, I experience and observe the same things from many different angles. Everything around me is suddenly connected and related to what my mind focuses on in a very real way.
If you’re focused on marketing and better communication, even when you drink your water, you find yourself thinking: why did I buy this cup? How was that choice informed? Was it the colors? The comfort of purchase? Why do I still use it? How can I communicate all this to my audience?
I am now in the process of decluttering my life. Even though I am curious and I love learning, I am choosing to say “NO” to most things so I can give myself the chance of going deep on the things that I say “YES” to.
There is no multitasking. Choose one thing, do it well, do it until you feel complete. Then choose the next one.